A gray cat watches impassively as sickening sounds of assault are heard off-screen. An intruder flees, and it's clear Michèle (Isabelle Huppert) has been raped in her home. Michèle's immediate reaction is as affectless as her cat's gaze: she stands, momentarily collects herself and calmly sweeps up the shards of a broken vase. The police are not called.
Paul Verhoeven's Elle is a mystery couched within a mystery. Superficially a revenge thriller in which a victim tracks down her attacker, Elle's real enigma is Michèle's unexpectedly muted reaction to being raped. More than most films, Elle relies on viewers reserving their judgment of its characters and their behavior, and its success lies in casting the strangest of those behaviors in a recognizably human light.
Michèle, alongside her best friend Anna, runs a successful video game company, and their current project resembles a gorier, sexier version of World of Warcraft. Probably not where you'd expect this poised and icy sixty-year-old woman to focus her energy, but her profession fits better in light of her tragic past. Michèle's father is in prison for a ghastly killing spree committed when she was a young girl, to which she claimed to be an unwitting accomplice – she blames the police and media for sensationalizing her as a sort of demon-child, and this reputation haunts her still. As a video game developer creating and populating a world down to the smallest detail, perhaps Michèle can revel in a degree of control her father's crimes have denied her in her own life. Apart from her video game's fiction, real-world Michèle compensates with a self-possession that flirts constantly with recklessness, wooing married men on a whim and smashing into parked cars with barely a shrug.
When Michèle eventually tells her friends and ex-husband Richard of the assault, they implore her to call the police, but she refuses, having no trust left in the authorities. As the rapist begins stalking Michèle with threatening messages, she undertakes a noirish journey to identify him, and all the men in her life fall under suspicion. Perhaps it's a member of her game team – the disgruntled Kurt, the infatuated Ralf? Or her kindly and helpful neighbor? The more Michèle discovers, the more she's forced to confront troubling facets of her past and present.
Elle's mystery plot, with its clear foreshadowing and classic red herrings, might seem fairly conventional if not for Michèle's subversiveness. Her outside-the-box behavior – at least in terms of what we've been trained to expect in movies – makes us careful to presume too much about anyone else. Paul Verhoeven, for his part, does not seem interested in sensationalizing Michèle's story – the film's opening shot of a cat, watching inscrutably from a distance, feels like a proclamation of the measured and non-judgmental directorial style to come. Verhoeven favors careful visual symbolism over obvious directorial flourishes, and evocations of old Hollywood and film noir are greatly aided by Anne Dudley's straightforward, atmospheric score for string orchestra.
The film shows an unusual level of compassion for all its characters, to the point that its lack of judgment carries a risk of seeming indifferent to, or even normalizing, their sometimes grotesque behavior. But Elle doesn't refuse to point a finger so much as it points a finger back at the audience, challenging us to reckon with our assumptions about the motives behind human behavior.
This is the challenge faced by Michèle, too – in a sense, this new tragedy provides her with an opportunity to course-correct and reconcile with the ever-rippling echoes of her father's crimes. That the film uses rape as an inciting incident for redemption could be understandably galling for some, and it may or may not help that Elle displays at least as much emasculation as misogyny, that it passes the Bechdel test, or that the story arcs toward female empowerment (in a sly bit of parallel storytelling, the glimpses we see of Michèle's video game provide clues to her own evolution). But as much as Elle asks us to empathize with the most implausible behaviors, those behaviors' consequences are made devastatingly clear.
For all its twisty plot machinations, Elle ends on a surprisingly satisfying note. As intimated in its final shot, the ghosts of the past will continue to haunt until laid to rest, however messy and elusive that process might be.